The Technologists in the Studio: Nettrice Gaskins highlights the connections between communities, cultures, arts, and STEM

Nettrice Gaskins ● Educator, Artist and Current Program Manager ● Fab Foundation

Nettrice Gaskins ● Educator, Artist and Current Program Manager ● Fab Foundation

Nettrice Gaskins’ technology journey began in a seemingly unlikely place: an arts high school in Louisville, KY.

“I was on a visual arts track. During my junior year, a teacher who taught pottery decided she wanted to teach computer graphics. So she recruited students in their senior year who needed to take an elective. Initially, I was not interested in computer graphics, but she opened up a new area of interest for me, and that work is what got me into college.”

Nettrice’s winning computer graphics portfolio entry in the Pratt Institute National Talent Search led to her major in Computer Graphics as a college student; in the early 90s, it was among the first Computer Graphics degree programs in the country.

“A lot of the things that we were learning were at the cutting edge. What we now take for granted because of Pixar and Disney and animation was at that time very experimental.”

While at school, Nettrice joined a collective with students from numerous other disciplines.

“I didn’t really hang out with the computer graphics kids. I hung out with fashion folks and engineering students — the collective was broader than what I majored in. I think that had an impact on the work I was doing. We would hang out and listen to the same music; some of them were DJs, and there was a production element of the collective that included making music using the college radio station’s equipment — producing demo tapes and doing parties in Manhattan. People took on entrepreneurial projects in addition to what we were doing on campus.”

The creative collective of fellow students at Pratt led her to an interest in amplifying voices that are often missing in the general public’s notion of “technology.”

“There are voices that we think are far away from technology, when that’s not the case — it’s just that the way they engage with tech is far from what we conceive of as the mainstream. The people in the studio, making music, wouldn’t think of themselves as ‘technologists.’ It’s not introduced that way in the media. When I was at Georgia Tech and minoring in cognitive studies, I didn’t think of myself as a scientist. I remember a professor telling me, ‘Nettrice, you are a scientist. You are doing scientific things.’ There are a lot of similar examples of artists and practitioners in different cultures on the cutting edge of STEM, but no one’s attributing them to STEM or STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and math] in any way when they are very much a part of that.”

She cites numerous examples, like lowrider culture, where people re-engineer cars based on a desired aesthetic, and musical production in hip-hop, where technological processes are required to use machines to break music apart, sample, and layer sounds.

“In hip-hop it’s called cutting and scratching. People at MIT Media Lab took that idea of the DJs ‘scratching’ and created Scratch [a block-based visual programming language]. Now kids all over the world use Scratch, but no one makes the connections back to DJ’ing, so DJs don’t even realize that they’re computational and that they’re using scientific methods. But they are. Calling that to the forefront is what I’m interested in.”

Later she encountered graffiti artists who used mathematical concepts to plot out murals. Nettrice discovered that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Dr. Ron Eglash had developed a tool called Graffiti Grapher. The tool allows users to create graffiti images on a computer using geometric concepts. It’s an example of a Culturally Situated Design Tool (CSDT) — a tool that allows students to learn math and computing principles through cultural arts that may already be relevant and familiar in their lives.

“We used Graffiti Grapher during a STEM Arts residency in New Mexico working with high school students in Albuquerque — kids who were exposed to graffiti every day. We were able to make a connection, not just to graffiti but to other culturally relevant things, including ancient indigenous designs on pottery. Most of these students were not really artists or focused on STEM areas, but because of the tools and content, they were quickly able to pick up on these concepts.”

Cultural symbology can inform more effective pedagogy for teaching STEM. It can also help educational programs retain students who are searching for meaning in their work. Nettrice shared the story of an email she received from a Nigerian-American recent bioengineering graduate who was feeling disillusioned about her field, and their subsequent conversation.

“Then one day I got a box and when I opened the box, I saw these Nigerian head wraps or ‘Gele’ that she had connected to STEM concepts — taking her own culture and merging it with what she had learned in school. She had some new ideas about what she could do as a graduate student. It was as simple as making that connection, saying ‘there is something embedded in you, something that is common to you, that you can bring with you into your work.”

Reminding students that their personal histories, intergenerational knowledge, and cultural heritage can all play a role in the work they do is an empowering message that Nettrice shares frequently.

“I see all my students as having their own knowledge systems and assets. Every single student comes with something. Kids are not empty vessels. They come to the table with something valuable from a community and a culture. The more you can help them make that bridge between what they have and what they want to do, the more engaged they will be, and the longer they can stick with it. We have to make that connection.”

Rebel with Code and a Cause

Victoria Concepción Chávez ● Grad Student (Master’s Candidate, Urban Education Policy) and Research Intern at CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island)

Victoria Concepción Chávez ● Grad Student (Master’s Candidate, Urban Education Policy) and Research Intern at CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island)

Victoria Chávez’s teenage rebellion was taking computer science as an elective in high school. Her mother and grandmother had immigrated from Guatemala to Chicago for a better life for Victoria and had no idea what computer science was, but they noticed that people working with computers on television did not look like Victoria. They were hoping she might become a doctor. But Victoria was “blown away by all the cool things [she] could do through programming and by the sequential thinking and amazing problem solving it entailed. As frustrating as debugging was, it was the most rewarding academic challenge [she] had ever encountered.” 

Despite her family’s trepidation about her newfound passion, Victoria was hooked. When her teacher unassigned a complex hangman game as “too hard” for the students, Victoria kept at working at it for months until she got her code to work. She remembers being so happy that she cried. Victoria advocates that persistence and patience in problem solving are essential.

Victoria shares a deep feeling of responsibility to help others. At her first Hackathon, she developed an SMS-based app called SNAPy that would tell users which stores accept food stamps. The idea came from her own experiences growing up. 

Her recent work continues her desire to make a positive difference. Victoria is a research intern at Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) while working on a master’s degree in Urban Education Policy at Brown University. She is looking at ways to make computer science, as well as education technologies, more accessible to students with disabilities, including ways to integrate universal design into CS curriculum. She has found that a lack of awareness of different forms of disabilities, as well as a lack of resources, hinders this process.

Victoria has advice for future engineers: “Take care of yourself and find a support system. Hard work takes a toll on mental and physical health. You need to find people who have the same values and can help you get through the obstacles and struggles. You can help them too.”

Victoria feels lucky to have friends and mentors to help lift her spirits, remind her of goals, and give her permission to have a bad day or two. She also learned the value of making mistakes and learning from them. 

“You WILL make mistakes, learn from them and correct for the next time. No matter how much you know, there’s always something you don’t know. You have to be comfortable with that and with others calling you out on that and learning from it.”

Victoria is proud to be paving the way for future females in tech and encourages other women to do the same. One example is being an active member of NCWIT’s Technolochicas community, inspiring Latinas to create the future of tech.

“We need to get through the tunnel so we can help other women through the tunnel. If you have the mental and emotional bandwidth to get through it, it’s important to pave the way for others.” 

Her mother and grandmother still don’t understand what computer science is, but they love how happy it makes Victoria and all the wonderful opportunities it has brought her way.

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This story was written by Hillary Fleenor, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, and told in partnership with NCWIT.

The Nature of Engineering: How Claire Janisch harnesses the power of nature, the world’s best builder

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch’s journey to find her life’s passion began as an intern in a chemical plant during her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She compares being in the plant to visiting a new, and strange land, like traveling to Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. Dismayed by the environmental destruction she observed that seemed embedded in most manufacturing processes, she felt certain that it did not have to be this way. She envisioned manufacturing processes that create useful things while nourishing the local ecosystem instead of destroying it. So, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in environmental process engineering, focusing on cleaning up polluting industries, and then worked on sustainable development projects in industry, agriculture, urban and commercial applications. Although she was doing important work, Claire still felt that something was missing from the manufacturing paradigm.

“It struck me that all most [of them] were doing was trying to slow down or minimize their negative impact on the environment. I wondered if there was an option for chemical engineering to leave a beneficial or regenerative environmental footprint.”

That’s when Claire discovered biomimicry. Biomimicry is “the practice of learning from and emulating nature to design sustainable products, processes and systems.” Nature already has created environmentally friendly solutions to engineering problems. Through biomimicry, humans can learn how reimagine modern society in ways that help to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. Claire is most proud of the work she is doing with BiomimicrySA, an organization she started in 2009, to bring experts in biomimicry technologies to South Africa to address pressing problems such as the current water crisis. One of these projects was in the top 10 for a European Green Tech award. Her team worked with John Todd Ecological Design and others to design a low cost, low tech wastewater treatment and stormwater management solution for a settlement near Cape Town.

“The project resulted in improved health and environment for the community as well as prevention of pollution of a downstream river that is used to irrigate important export crops from South Africa.”

Claire encourages women to consider engineering as a career with a mindset of helping to shift the field. Engineers take ideas and bring them into reality, but that process of creation can also lead to destruction. Claire believes her role as a woman in engineering has been to bring a feminine perspective of nurturing into a discipline that has been dominated historically by a lack of concern for environment impact. Women have a unique perspective.

“We need feminine perspectives in STEM, not just women who think like men, but women who think differently from men. We need the softness and nurturing, we need balance.” She points out that biomimicry itself is a wonderful example of that balance. “A spider web is strong and tough, but it is also nourishing because it can be eaten when it’s over.”

Claire advises future engineers to surround themselves with mentors to help get through challenges. And be open to finding mentors in unexpected places. Claire has found nature to be her biggest influence.

“I am lucky enough to have nature as my mentor and I am continuously inspired and amazed by the genius and wisdom in the way that organisms and ecosystems solve complex problems.”

Finding Superwomen: How supportive mentors and a love for art jumpstarted Becca Refford’s career

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

“I have this old busted-up computer. You want to take it apart and get to the guts?”

When Becca Refford heard those words from her aunt, Steph Alarcon, she had no idea that her childhood love of making would later help other young women launch their own STEM journeys. Becca’s aunt introduced her to an organization called TechGirlz, which provides free, hands-on workshops for middle school girls to help them “get their hands dirty” with all kinds of technology.

“We offer a little bit of everything. We offer plenty of programming workshops, but we also offer workshops in graphic design, virtual reality, security, robotics, smart textiles, the list goes on! The more that I started learning about TechGirlz, the more I started thinking, ‘wow I wish there was something like this for me when I was growing up.’ ”

As a student at a competitive high school, Becca encountered negative attitudes toward careers in creative fields, often being asked “what are you going to do with an art degree?” so she looked for alternative ways to do what she loved.

“The minute I found out that there was a path to creative pursuits using technology, I was sold. There’s no dichotomy between being creative and being in tech. If you’re into art or design, consider UI and UX, how people interact with technology or graphic design. In this day and age technology touches absolutely everything. I want to break down that misconception of ‘you need to have a math brain to do tech.’ ”

Becca knows this firsthand, because it was her work in marketing that initially led her to web design. After producing numerous graphics for TechGirlz, she decided that she could scrape together enough knowledge of the scripting language PHP to completely overhaul the website in 2016.

“TechGirlz was the first website that I ever launched by myself and took from start to finish. That got me really excited about web design, thinking ‘I could do this as a career.’ ”

Becca went on to design the website for the Women in Tech Summit. Her belief in her abilities to design websites from scratch took off because of support from other women.

“The TechGirlz founder, Tracey — she’s my Superwoman. She exemplifies what a super savvy business woman looks like: knowing your strengths, but also knowing exactly where to find a solid group of people to fill in those blanks for you. I watched her do that with hiring Karen [long-time Program Director, now Advisory Board member at TechGirlz], another one of my Superwomen. Karen is detail-oriented, she’s got spreadsheets for everything. She is more on top of it than I could ever hope to be in my entire life.”

The mentorship Becca received from women like Tracey and Karen proved pivotal in her professional journey, and she encourages other young women to find mentors early in their lives as well.

“Finding a mentor — not just anybody, but somebody who you look up to personally and whose values you respect — is huge. Get your hands dirty. Say yes. Find a little bit of time to volunteer, join a group, or offer your skills or talents to an organization that you can really get behind. That opens doors to meet women who can speak to the specific challenges you face. Ladies gotta stick together!”

The value of mentorship goes both ways, with mentors often learning a great deal from their mentees. Becca mentioned that she learned from the girls she taught in TechGirlz camps.

“They knew what they wanted. All we had to do was put the tools in their hands and they would fly. When we were packaging our workshops, TechShopz in a Box, so that people anywhere could teach girls, we faced doubt from parents and organizations who thought the curriculum would be too hard for twelve-year-old girls. They could not be more wrong. These girls were capable of grasping big concepts: minimum viable product, prototyping, user flows. Don’t undersell these girls for a second, because they are whip smart.”

Ultimately, the value of mentorship is far deeper than career advancement and networking connections. In December 2017, Becca was biking in Philadelphia when a delivery truck struck her and ran over the bottom half of her body. She spent a year re-learning how to walk.

“The women who I had surrounded myself with for the first couple years of my career — Tracey and Karen, these superheroes — were the first ones to scoop me up in such a scary and awful time. Coming out to my parents’ house way outside of the city just to spend time with me. Helping me transition back to working again. To have emotional bonds with these women was just absolutely breathtaking. That’s the power of community.”

Just as Becca seeks to do away with the notion that technology and creative pursuits are diametrically opposed, her personal story evokes the idealism and values of the early internet — the idea that technology, at the end of the day, is about bringing people together.

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This story was written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter.

WITS has several summits happening around the country. Learn more and check out their event schedule at https://womenintechsummit.net/.

The Thousand-Mile Engineering Journey: How Patricia Garcia left the comfort of her hometown and Latino heritage to pursue engineering research

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

“At just 18, I was leaving my family and Latino culture… and walking away into an unknown, mysterious world in search of that elusive adventure I longed for.”

It took guts to fly out of her hometown for the first time for a 10-week internship, but Patricia took the leap of faith to transform herself into a researcher.

Patricia grew up in in Miami and attended the Young Women’s Preparatory Academy (YWPA). With its strong focus on STEM and incorporation of technology in almost all of its courses, YWPA encouraged Patricia to pursue her passion for science and math by looking into engineering.

“When I walked into Young Women’s, it was almost like the gender bias and the sexism many women in STEM [face] vanished,” Patricia says. “I didn’t see myself as an aspiring ‘girl engineer.’ I simply saw myself as an engineer.”

Back home in Florida, Patricia was often told that her hopes to one day become a mechanical engineer were pursuits for “a man’s job.” But after much reflection, Patricia knew that societal influences could not deter her from pursuing her dreams.

What inspired Patricia most was watching her mother’s illness continually take a toll on her without any firm diagnosis, despite numerous tests. During Patricia’s senior year of high school, her mother underwent a Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement because she was no longer able to obtain the necessary nutrients.

“The only logical answer for my [never-ending] questions [was] the application of engineering principles and design concepts,” she says. “At that point in my life, I decided I would explore the intersection of engineering and research.”

As her mother’s health steadily improved, Patricia sought learning opportunities that incorporated the engineering principles she hoped to examine more deeply. In 2017, she took on a full-time research position at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). During this summer before her freshman year of college, Patricia focused her research on creating bio-engineered scaffolds to enhance the regeneration of damaged tissues and organs.

“To better understand the material properties of the composite patch, my project focused on evaluating the integration of the fibrin microthread and fibrin hydrogel phases,” she says. “After my time at WPI, not only did I solidify my passion for a long-standing interest, but I [also] developed the confidence in myself to pursue my goals.”

During the summer of 2018, Patricia spent time as a biomechanics project researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the course of nearly two months, she worked on a biomechanics project that consisted of engineering 3D skeletal muscle tissue.

“With everything that life threw at me, I look back and think… I could’ve just decided to give up and be average, but why be average when you have all these opportunities given to you,” Patricia says. “If it’s out there and I know about it, there shouldn’t be any reason why I won’t try to go get it.”

Patricia is currently a sophomore at the Florida International University Honors College and is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering with a research interest in the mechanical design of medical devices and prostheses. She has recently been selected as a McNair fellow at FIU. While she is awaiting notification from several prestigious universities for research positions, she hopes to one day develop products for a company in the biomedical field.

“You know yourself better than anyone else, so there’s no reason why someone other than yourself should be able to tell you whether you can or cannot do something,” Patricia says. “Who is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself?”

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This story was written by Shruti Kumar, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, and told in partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing (AiC).

Breaking Down Walls with Open Source Technology: Srishti Sethi’s developer advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation

Srishti Sethi ● Developer Advocate ● Wikimedia Foundation

Srishti Sethi ● Developer Advocate ● Wikimedia Foundation

Going to school in India, Srishti Sethi found little inspiration in the unyielding rigidity of her curriculum and teachers who prized rote memorization more than creativity from their students.

“Back then I was in a space where I had no guidance from my lecturers or professors. I was interested in what I saw happening outside of the curriculum — places where I could learn and grow.”

It was friends and classmates, not professors, who first taught her about open source software — software that anyone, not just the creator, can freely use and adapt. The concept of open source was a revelation.

“For me, the appeal of open source was freedom, collaboration, peer learning, and transparency.”

Srishti’s interest in open source led her to new communities. She writes on her blog about borrowing her mother’s laptop in 2009, her third year of college, to attend the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) conference in Bangalore. She continued to attend that conference and numerous others, and in 2011, participated in Google’s Summer of Code (GSOC).

“As part of GSOC, I helped develop educational software, which introduced me to this exciting intersection of technology and education. After working for a couple of startups back in India, I found myself wanting to enter a research program that would allow me to keep contributing to education technology.”

A friend told her about Mitchel Resnick’s storied research group, Lifelong Kindergarten, at the MIT Media Lab. That’s the group behind Scratch, the block-based programming language known for its child-friendly design. Reading about Lifelong Kindergarten online, Srishti immediately felt drawn to their work.

“But I was like ‘they’re not going to accept me, who am I?’ I applied to seven grad schools, including MIT, but I thought I probably wouldn’t get in.”

Despite that self-doubt she did get in, and completed a Master’s degree in Media Arts and Sciences. Srishti’s research focused on the intersection of education and technology, including designing online learning platforms to engage people in peer learning.

“When I was done, I asked ‘Where next?’ At that point I was adamant about going to an organization that was interested in free knowledge and shared my values.”

The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia, was a natural choice. In her role as a Developer Advocate, Srishti supports new developers in the massive volunteer community that upholds Wikipedia.

“We run mentoring programs to draw in new contributors to Wikimedia projects. I help coordinate the Wikimedia Foundation’s participation in the Google Summer of Code and Outreachy. Those two programs help us bring in folks who are underrepresented in tech.”*

Srishti says it’s deeply fulfilling to see the GSOC and Outreachy mentees’ personal and professional growth, from the projects they complete at the end of their internships to their progress through jobs and grad school applications. She can relate to their journeys: her own experience of stumbling into the world of open source technology ultimately gave her a concept — and a community — that acted as guiding lights throughout her career.

Indeed, when Srishti reflects on her current role and the volunteers, collaborators, and interns she’s been able to work with, she reflects on her own past.

“Through my work, I see so many people like me, who may be in academic settings with very little exposure to opportunities or guidance, just like I was, craving opportunities and a sense of direction. These projects and open source programs that bring in new contributors make a difference in their lives.”

Srishti advises others thinking of careers in STEM fields to keep experimenting and learning in order to find their direction.

“Finding your passion doesn’t just come automatically, it comes with a lot of experiments. For me, the beginning was a bit challenging. I kept asking ‘what next, what next?’ Even now, I’m still thinking critically and asking how I can tie what I’m doing to the bigger picture of impact.”

*Google Summer of Code, which is open to university students, is accepting applications between March 25th to April 9th.

*Outreachy is accepting applications between February 18 to March 26. A few projects have extended deadlines until April 2. They recommend that applicants start on their applications a couple weeks in advance of the deadline.

The Hidden Value of Detours: How a serendipitous stumble into a cyber-cafe catalyzed Gladys Maina’s IT career

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina wasn’t always going to be an IT professional. A dutiful daughter, she initially obeyed her parents’ directions and pursued a medical laboratory certification, following in her medic father’s footsteps.

“Then during a long holiday, a friend introduced me to a cyber-cafe. These had just started coming up in Nairobi, Kenya in 2004. They said, ‘Here, you can pay a bit of money and then you can access the internet.’ I came from Nyahururu, a village, so I was very impressed. I remembered thinking, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Gladys describes the halcyon days of the early internet with fondness, reminiscing on MSN and chatting with people around the world. The feelings of liberation and connectedness that the early days of the internet provided proved to be alluring distractions from the career opportunities that awaited her in the medical field. She got her opportunity to switch sectors when a friend recommended her for a sales position at a newly opened a cyber cafe. After working in that role for three months, she became a cyber cafe attendant.

“That meant internet was free. I could research as much as I wanted, and had a computer at my disposal.”

Later, she studied information of management systems at Kenya Methodist University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Nairobi. Now, she’s optimistic that young women from similar backgrounds as her, who haven’t grown up in Kenya’s biggest cities, will have a more direct path to tech access. She points to innovations like the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) communications protocol, which enables information and money transfer over basic phones.

“For instance, you can use a standard phone to enroll in M-Shule [mobile learning management platform delivering educational content via SMS]. You don’t really need to have a smartphone for you to access technology. The government of Kenya is trying to digitize a lot of schools and services, from issuing tablets to students to establishing walk-in centers such as Huduma where you can access internet and get government services.”

Access isn’t everything, though; it’s always helpful to have somebody model what success looks like and encourage you throughout your journey. That’s why Gladys is active in mentoring young women pursuing STEM paths, working closely with African Women in Technology since 2016, and mentoring girls through the Ghana-based Nsesa Foundation. The experience of working with young women has left her with strong beliefs about the importance of lifelong learning and letting youth choose their own paths.

“Mentorship is a symbiotic journey where you are both learning. I believe you are never too old to be taught and never too young to learn. I would tell [parents and educators] to let their young ones pursue their dreams.”

She alludes to her own decision to switch fields as one of the reasons she feels strongly about giving young people the freedom to decide their vocations, and says that choices about work can cause friction in relationships between parents and children. In such situations, all is not lost.

“You can finish the degree that your parents are paying for, get a job, and then work toward what you want to do. That’s what I did. My parents finished paying for the medical laboratory school, but for my diploma, bachelors and masters, I paid using my own money.”

Her story is a testament to the value of flexibility and risk-taking, starting small and working your way up. Today, technology has advanced from the days when Gladys worked as an attendant in a cyber-cafe and chatted on MSN. So too have public perceptions of women in tech.

“Now people can celebrate women like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. Here in Kenya I look up to Dr. Chao Mbogho, who has been changing the narrative and showing that women can make it. We aren’t born with a male brain or a female brain. You can achieve what you want, you just have to put in the hours, then keep on going. Sometimes it will get tough, but you have to keep going, keep learning, and keep developing yourself.”

The Data Scientist Who Mastered Multitasking: How Sundas Khalid Became the First Female in Her Family to Pursue a Degree and Career

Sundas Khalid ● Data Scientist ● Amazon

Sundas Khalid ● Data Scientist ● Amazon

Sundas Khalid had never considered attending college, let alone a profession in engineering. As a young woman coming from a conservative family in Faisalabad, Pakistan, she says receiving an education and building a career was unheard of.

Shortly after finishing high school in Pakistan, Sundas got married and came to the United States in 2004 to live with her husband. After a six-year gap in her education, she decided to pick up where she left off and further her studies. Sundas attended a community college for two years before transferring to the University of Washington in Seattle in 2012. While earning her bachelor’s in business administration, she simultaneously raised her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

During her time at UW, Sundas interned at Amazon as a financial analyst intern and worked with databases. She won first place for her presentation among all the interns and was offered a position. At Amazon, she recognized a newfound passion for technology.

“I never considered tech as an option because no one in my family or friend circle studied tech,” she says. “And it was a bit late, as I was three months away from graduation.”

In the last three months before graduation, Sundas took a database management certification course and began interviewing for Amazon’s technical and analytical positions. In 2014, she graduated from UW as valedictorian and gave a speech to an audience of 3,000 students, parents and faculty at the Husky Stadium.

The path to success has not always been easy for Sundas, especially because she has been raising two children while building her career. In difficult times, she says she reminds herself of her husband’s support and stays inspired by those around her.

“I look at where I was and where I am. Compare yourself to yourself, not to another person,” Sundas says. “Don’t compare yourself to other people because everyone has different journeys.”

Sundas started attending the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2016 and has not missed a conference since. In 2017, she took part in the local Seattle chapter as a member of the speakers’ committee and was in the data science committee the following year. In 2019, she plans to be on the mentoring committee.

Through the AnitaB.org community, Sundas connected with the two co-founders of Pakistani Women in Computing (PWiC) in 2018 and now leads the PWiC Seattle Chapter.

“To overcome imposter syndrome, I’ve started surrounding myself with women who look like me and pursue similar career paths,” Sundas says. “[I have been] mentoring young women who are entering tech and helping them shape their future.”

Sundas currently works as a data scientist in Amazon’s A/B testing platform and Weblab, the centralized science team for testing and launching new features for the Amazon site worldwide. She has given over 20 presentations and has worked with several Amazon teams, including Alexa, Amazon Music, Search (A9), Amazon Devices, Amazon Kindle and Prime Now.

In November 2018, Sundas won two awards for exemplary work at Amazon with her non-Prime experience (NPX) team. After five years at Amazon, she says that she has taught herself data engineering, statistics, machine learning, SQL, R and Python with the help of courses and the people around her.

“If you have a dream, make sure you have the right people around you,” Sundas says. “It’s about who you involve in your life and surrounding yourself with people who believe in your dreams.”

The Art of Code and the Code in Art: How Aimee Lucido Blends Code, Music and Writing to Tell Her Story

Aimee Lucido ● Senior Android Engineer ● Uber Eats

Aimee Lucido ● Senior Android Engineer ● Uber Eats

“I love working on hard problems that actually touch people, I love working with a team, and ultimately, I love shipping a product to millions — if not billions — of people. That feeling never gets old!”

Aimee Lucido loves being a working engineer. One of her most memorable projects at Uber was the development of a robust and stable UI to allow drivers to get a bonus by recruiting riders to sign up to become drivers themselves. The project spanned four different teams, three microsystems, and involved large changes to the API. As the sole engineer on a very large full-stack project, she had to learn new languages and navigate differing team priorities.

Aimee got interested in coding in middle school through games and continued her interest in high school. She went on to receive degrees in computer science and literary arts from Brown University, and a fine arts master’s degree from Hamline University in creative writing for children and young adults.

Her advice to anyone who thinks they might be interested in coding: Just give it a try! See how it might be related to other interests you already have. Learning anything new can be a challenge. She recommends breaking challenges down into steps.

“If I’m feeling overwhelmed by something (or, more often, too many somethings) it helps me to make a list. Checking things off that list gives me a feeling of completion, and also it ensures that I don’t forget anything. And so often a really hard challenge feels hard only because there are so many tasks to accomplish, but no one item on the todo list is particularly strenuous. So if I remember that a big task is made up of lots of little tasks, it instantly becomes more manageable.”

In an effort to inspire more girls to share her love for engineering, Aimee authored a new children’s book, Emmy in the Key of Code, that will be published in September 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Versify.

“It’s about a twelve-year-old ex-musician named Emmy who accidentally ends up in a computer science class, and finds herself connecting with code the way she always wanted to connect with music. It’s told in a hybrid of verse and Java code, and my hope is that kids will read it for the story, not realizing that they’re secretly also learning computer science.”

Adding to her passion for engineering and writing, Aimee is a lot of other things: A marathon runner, a musician, a crossword puzzle creator. And that’s the message that Aimee Lucido embodies: Computer science can be the main focus of your life or it can be just one of the many things you do. And you can use code itself to do the other things. Aimee sees math, music, art, poetry, and code as, essentially, the same thing: A way of communicating; a recipe to convey something to the world.

“Once you know code, it bleeds into everything you do.” Besides her first novel being about the connection between music and code, Aimee uses coding to help her make crossword puzzles she has published in The New York Times, Crosswords With Friends, and smaller indie publications.

Aimee is a vocal advocate for diversity in computing. While she knows that underrepresented groups, including women, still face challenges in the field, she appreciates the opportunity to be involved in the charge for change. Part of her work at Uber is to help increase diversity through leading by example and sharing her own experiences.

Her advice for anyone struggling to find a place for themselves in the tech industry is to “keep yourself loosely defined” and “say yes to everything” to maximize opportunities and possibilities you can’t yet imagine.

“Change your definition of yourself often; it keeps things interesting. But make sure to say no to things that don’t move you towards your goals.”

Empowering Women in STEM Around the World

Nehal Profile Pic.png

Wogrammer is excited to introduce you to our newest board member, Nehal Mehta.

Nehal grew up in Mumbai, India and moved to the US for her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan. While she has built an impressive career in the tech industry she did not grow up thinking she’d become an engineer.

“I did not always want to be an engineer. I didn’t even know what engineers did. I thought that they worked on factory floors. However, I liked math and science in school.”

She was all set to go to business school, when she found herself in an accounting class truly bored and decided to look at other majors. So, with help from a college counselor, she took some new classes which steered her towards analytics and tech.

“I loved my programming and statistics classes. I embraced that area and graduated with a degree in Computer and Information Systems.”

From there Nehal embarked on a decades long career in tech, growing in leadership roles and building strong teams. She especially excelled at growing, mentoring and managing large teams across multiple countries.

Leveraging her vast technology background Nehal moved into strategic partnerships at Symantec and Veritas. More recently she joined Genesys as their Director of Global Strategic Alliances. Having lived and worked in multiple countries, Nehal is a global citizen who deeply believes in the power of bringing together diverse cultures and communities. She shares how her varied experiences allow her to, “draw parallels in the challenges that working women face across the globe and how we can positively move it forward through removing conscious and unconscious bias.”

Nehal brings years of passion and experience advocating for women and kids in STEM. She regularly speaks at conferences, highlighting the importance of networking and building a strong personal brand.

Her advice for women is to “build a personal board of directors and to actively give back to your network.” You can read more about her advice in this post, “Who’s on your Personal Board of Directors.

Join me in welcoming Nehal to our board and the Wogrammer community! You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.

Old Code, New Tricks: How Andrea Goulet is renovating code through her business Corgibytes

Andrea Goulet ● CEO ● Corgibytes

Andrea Goulet ● CEO ● Corgibytes

As the daughter of entrepreneurial parents, it was only fitting for Andrea Goulet to learn the ropes of owning her own business at an early age. By age 12, Andrea was running a business that supported her father’s clients — handling everything from logistics and orders to invoices. Her natural ability to understand business was further propelled in college as a marketing student at Virginia Commonwealth University. When an old high school friend approached her about a business proposition after reading her marketing blog, Andrea was surprised to hear what he had to say.

“He told me that the way I think about marketing is very technical. He noticed I used algorithms and patterns, and my thought process included many elements of programming. I was always interested in technology, and he believed I would be a good fit for leading his startup.”

Since 2009, Andrea has become a serial entrepreneur and the founder of several brands, including Corgibytes. What started as a simple side hustle became her ultimate niche and passion. At Corgibytes, Andrea and her team revitalize legacy code, which Andrea describes as “code without trust,” but is commonly thought of as “fixer upper” software that needs to be modernized.

“When people ask me what is the purpose of re-engineering old code, I use this analogy. If you want to remodel your kitchen, you don’t bulldoze the entire house. There is good business logic embedded in an existing system, and there is usually a way to update and modernize something by doing a little bit at a time.”

Andrea explained that for many companies, updating software instead of rewriting it is not only cheaper but more efficient, especially if the code supports many users. To reinvent old code, there are a series of processes Andrea uses. First, she starts with a report that her company calls a “Code Inspection.” Because Corgibytes operates in a digital space without a physical product to touch, this report helps business teams visualize and understand different things that make code very healthy. Her team of developers measure and report on these aspects, such as code complexity, duplication, test coverage, team communication, and more. From there, they are able to decide how fragile the code is and what needs to be repaired. Andrea’s marketing background means that these recommendations, which are usually difficult to decipher by people who don’t code all day, are in plain English. This makes it easy for executives to understand and act on. To effectively lead Corgibytes, Andrea had to first submerge herself into coding classes.

“In the beginning, learning how to code was really hard. It’s difficult to get out of your comfort zone and learn something new. I watched a TED Talk by Carol Dweck about developing a growth mindset, and it helped me see that I can grow and eventually I’m going to learn it.”

The most popular programming languages that Corgibytes supports are Ruby, Python, Java, and C#. With the help of Code.org, Code Combat, freeCodeCamp, and various other learning tools, Andrea has become proficient in coding and she built a team that can help clients with a variety of programming languages.

Andrea shares her expertise through Legacy Code Rocks, a podcast she started that uncovers new tricks that programmers can use on old code. After previously having a marketing background and discovering what it is like to enter the tech industry, Andrea prides herself on being able to create a dialogue between business people and programmers.

“It has been an amazing feeling to translate business, which is my native language, to people who speak code because I understand both very well. Now I am able to help two people who normally wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively work through a problem.”

Her advice to others hoping to develop their own businesses in the technical industry is that the initial idea does not have to be perfect. She believes that anyone can create and develop a business on the side and work to watch it steadily grow over time, just as Corgibytes did. With the added help of a growth mindset, anything is possible.

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This story was told in partnership with Women in Tech Summits (WITS), which hosts events across the United States to connect, inspire and build a community of women building the future of tech. Andrea Goulet is a past speaker and serves on the WITS advisory council. Register for an event near you at https://womenintechsummit.net.

How Melika Farahani Builds Her Confidence and a Path to Success

Melika Farahani ● Software Engineer ● Cafebazaar

Melika Farahani ● Software Engineer ● Cafebazaar

As soon as she showed an interest in technology, Melika Farahani’s family encouraged her to pursue that path. Despite being a young girl, her curiosity in her father’s engineering work with computers sparked an early interest in working in the same field.

Melika first started to explore this interest at Farzanegan High School in Tehran, Iran. As a student, she chose to participate in the Iranian National Olympiad in Informatics, an optional competition in which winners often receive admission to top universities. After several rounds of exams, Melika won a bronze medal in the competition and established a great ranking in Konkour, Iran’s annual university entrance exam. Melika then received admission to the Sharif University of Technology, Iran’s most renowned technical university.

During her first semester as a computer science major, Melika searched for a part-time job that would allow her to work with professionals and improve her technical skills. She soon joined Cafebazaar, a famous software company that offers more than 170,000 downloadable Iranian and international apps to over 39 million active users.

“I learned a lot from my coworkers and became familiar with cutting-edge technologies in programming, development and software engineering,” Melika says.

Melika continues to work at Cafebazaar part-time. During her four years in this role, she says her greatest accomplishment has been the recommender system project she worked on with a team of five data scientists and engineers. The main goal of this tool was to help users find apps they are most likely to download, making recommendations based on their interests and preferences. To do so, Melika’s team built a model to process the data of users’ interactions with Cafebazaar’s platform and suggest related applications in a list format.

“A big challenge [I faced] was time management. Handling university and a job together was a difficult problem, [but] having this amount of work makes me more organized,” Melika says. “Before this project, I never directly saw my work’s effects but this project had a real result and we got lots of positive feedback from our users.”

Melika used those same time management skills to participate in other projects for both school and work. As a college student, she was a member of the first women’s team for numerous local STEM tournaments. Melika was also a technical staff member in the 2017 International Olympiad in Informatics. To hone her communication skills, she became a teaching assistant for database, data structures, advanced programming and game theory courses.

Melika says she struggled with and overcame the challenge of low self-confidence in the first few months of working. She says that over time, it was a matter of targeting her areas for improvement, such as public speaking, that helped her gain confidence.

“In Iran and even in the world, there are fewer women in tech than men. Also, all my coworkers were older than me, [so] it took some months for me to have confidence to make big decisions at work,” Melika says. “Of course my work teammates had a huge effect on this, but more importantly, I tried to change my attitude. I decided to accept roles, take risks and improve my soft skills, such as speaking.”

Melika currently supports research projects (on a voluntary basis) in machine learning and data science with university research groups in Denmark and Canada. She plans to leave Iran for three months this March to intern at the National University of Singapore’s Institute for Application of Learning Science and Technology research group. Melika aims to pursue graduate studies in other countries to further her career.

“My family’s support really helps me so much. From the beginning, they supported me during the Olympiad,” Melika says. “It’s not very common in Iran for girls to be working at the age of 18, but my family got permission for me to do it. I really appreciate their support and trust.”

Girl Scout to Galaxy Explorer: How Caeley Looney discovered her path to aerospace engineering in middle school

Caeley Looney ● Mission Analyst ● Harris

Caeley Looney ● Mission Analyst ● Harris

It’s almost as if the stars aligned to bring Caeley Looney into the world of aerospace engineering. Caeley was born to two engineers — her mother was a naval engineer and her father worked at a defense contractor. She knew it was only a matter of time before her love for STEM pulled her towards engineering, too.

“I went through elementary school wanting to be a wide variety of things, from a fashion designer to a teacher, but the thought of being an engineer never crossed my mind until I was exposed to robotics.”

When Caeley was in middle school, her parents saw an ad for the local Girl Scouts FIRST robotics program and encouraged her to join. After getting a taste of STEM on this all-girls robotics team, she quickly began exploring different fields. During her first two years at Farmingdale High School in Long Island, New York, Caeley conducted research projects for her science course. When she realized that she enjoyed researching the Mars Rover, Caeley explored her newfound interest in space-related work through similar projects. These high school projects honed Caeley’s interest in STEM to aerospace engineering.

In 2014, Caeley enrolled in an aerospace engineering program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During the summers before college and after her freshman year, she volunteered at We Connect The Dots, a nonprofit organization that offers STEM-related programs to underprivileged students. Then the summer before her junior year, Caeley had a computer science internship with the Institute for Defense Analyses, where she she got her first look into the defense industry and the U.S. Department of Defense. Caeley went on to complete an internship with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center during her last semester of senior year, where she had the opportunity to focus on aerospace engineering and some computer science.

Caeley is a member of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), a community of more than 1,100 universities, companies, nonprofits and government organizations nationwide working to increase girls’ and women’s meaningful participation in computing. After receiving the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award in 2014, she was invited to join the NCWIT Facebook community, a support system of thousands of girls in tech.

“Any time I have an issue or concern, I just go and make a post on our Facebook page,” she says. “Within five minutes, I have ten different girls giving me advice and telling me not to give up!”

While attending the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2017, Caeley was interviewed and recruited as a mission analyst by Harris Corporation, a defense contractor and information technology services provider. She started working at Harris after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in May 2018.

At Harris, Caeley supports several key elements of satellite analysis. She simulates the orbital mechanics and dynamics of their small satellites system and her responsibilities include plotting different orbits, defining station keeping boundaries and optimizing spacecraft subsystems. Caeley says she is lucky to learn about a variety of systems rather than diving specifically into one topic.

“I always get to learn about different systems. I get to learn about things like balancing a power budget, sizing solar panels and developing a communications link budget. It’s great because I never get bored!”

“Any time I have run into a challenging situation, I have forced myself to step back and remember why I am in that situation: to become an aerospace engineer,” she says. “It has definitely been difficult to remember that while I’m in the midst of a tough problem but that has always been what gets me through. Well, that and ice cream!”

Caeley also battles the stigma against mental illness with the support of her service dog, Charlie. With her special furry friend by her side, Caeley says he is one of the biggest reasons she was able to make it to where she is.

“Mental illness is something that I struggled with for a greater part of my life and once I got to college, many of the symptoms worsened,” Caeley says. “My service dog has helped me realize that my disability shouldn’t hold me back from achieving my dreams and literally reaching for the stars. He reinforces my self confidence every time I begin to doubt it.”

Her advice for others — don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Caeley says that her incredible support system and a list of things that make her smile are what get her through the tough times.

“It made it a lot harder to give it up knowing that I’ve worked since the sixth grade towards this [goal]. Don’t give up,” she says. “This world needs women in computer science, aerospace, etc. Without us, progress isn’t made, so remember that.”

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This story was told in partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing.

Joanna Tong blazes a trail for women in biotech and chemical engineering

Joanna Tong ● Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager ● Genentech

Joanna Tong ● Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager ● Genentech

For many of us, medicine is the sought after solution for a cold, flu, or allergy. It can be the promise of a cure or a healthier lifestyle. For Joanna Tong, medicine is much more than that. It is the opportunity to make an immediate and tangible impact on the lives of those overcoming chronic illnesses. As the Senior Technical Manager for Genentech, Joanna is primarily focused on the overall quality of the medicine, its production, and its ability to be transported to different companies.

As a young student, Joanna enjoyed biology and genetics, and considered becoming a biologist early in her career. While studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was exploring different paths that aligned with her ambitions, when a professor recommended chemical engineering. After taking a few classes in the field, she grew to like the discipline because it empowered her to think outside of the box.

“In school, I did traditional lab work, however I found it more interesting to utilize technical problem-solving skills that are involved with engineering.”

Joanna put her skills to the test when she began interning at Genentech, over 10 years ago. Genentech gave Joanna the chance to dip her foot into the biotech and pharmaceutical worlds and allowed her to realize how much she loved the work she was doing.

“When I say that I help ensure we make high-quality medicines for patients, most people don’t realize that the medicine we make is quite different and much more complex than the pills you would see at your local pharmacy. Most of the medicines Genentech makes are proteins that are delivered via an IV infusion at a hospital, and those proteins are made by live cells that we grow in giant bioreactors. You have to control for and understand so many variables to keep the cells happy and producing the protein you want. It’s an incredibly complex process.”

Joanna spent most of her career as a Manufacturing Engineer, which plays an essential role in Genentech’s production of high-quality drugs. The complex drugs could aid those with serious medical conditions such as colon cancer, lung cancer, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis. One of the many important part of that role was making sure that the medicine-producing cells were effective and safe. Now, as a Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager, Joanna’s tasks are less focused on the manufacturing process and more on collaborating with suppliers.

“I work with the suppliers that give us the ingredients and equipment we use to make our medicines. It’s important to partner with them because if we don’t have good starting materials, it’s hard to have good quality come out the other side.”

As one of the only girls in advanced math and science classes early in her educational career, Joanna understands what it is like to be a minority in a technical field. Because of this, and in addition to her job, she now serves as the Regional Lead for Pharma Technical Operations Women Professionals at Genentech. Through this organization, she develops programs and organizes monthly events that help over 1000 women in the Pharma Technical Operations in the Southern San Francisco organization accomplish their career objectives while building the company’s pipeline of future leaders.

“I think opportunities for women in STEM are already changing and increasing. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked for a lot of amazing women leaders. It helps to have role models and mentors.”

Written in the Stars: How Myra Nawabi followed her heart and a non-traditional path to become an Afghan-American Pioneer in Technology

Myra Nawabi ● Senior Project Engineer   Lockheed Martin

Myra Nawabi ● Senior Project Engineer   Lockheed Martin

“Hey Elon Musk, if you’re looking for a COO for SpaceX, I’m the woman for the job.”

Myra Nawabi grew up reaching for the stars. As a young child growing up in Afghanistan, some of her earliest memories are gazing up at the night sky and thinking about what life would be like on the moon. She was not deterred by the adults around her claiming nobody lived up there and she asked, “what if there is a young girl up there who is invisible? How can we know for sure?”

That passion was a constant guide, helping her navigate some challenging times in her life. (And there have been more than a few!) The first one being when she was 6 years old and the Russians invaded her home country. Myra remembers that, “even during the war, the night sky was my constant.” After enduring several years of turmoil, when she was 10 years old her family fled to Pakistan and then on to New York. Her dreams of building products to explore space and the moon propelled her to pursue an undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering at Arizona State University.

Unfortunately, as she was about to complete that program, she succumbed to intense pressure from her family to get married. On the positive side, that decision brought Myra to the Bay Area and within a few years she found herself back at school, pursuing a BA and a teaching credential from Cal State East Bay. As circumstances in her personal life took another turn, it was with the help of an academic advisor that she received financial aid and was able to complete her program.

After graduating, Myra went on to teach middle school math for a few years. It was through that experience she participated in a summer fellowship program with IgnitEd, that helps classroom teachers get hands-on STEM knowledge by working in industry. What started as an 8 week internship at Lockheed Martin has turned into a nearly fifteen year career.

“Every intern (65 people in my cohort) made a presentation to a roomful of executives. They talked about what they learned and what they were taking back. In a “do or die” moment, I announced that my district was laying off teachers and I had no idea what was in store for me. But I did learn ethics at Lockheed Martin and I was going to teach it in my classroom to middle schoolers.”

This out of the box thinking caught the eye of an executive at Lockheed Martin Space. He encouraged her to apply for a position with their IT department and she’s been building her career there ever since.

At Lockheed she is closer to realizing her childhood dream of exploring the moon. She is most proud of building Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). The GLM is a satellite-borne single channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that has been placed on the GOES-16 satellite in a geostationary orbit. This orbital position allows for GLM to measure a dedicated region that includes the United States with continuous views capable of providing lightning detection at a rate never before obtained from space. GLM detects all forms of lightning during both day and night, continuously, with a high spatial resolution and detection efficiency.

Myra has been recognized as a leader in her space, being named Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence in 2016 and receiving Women in IT Awards, Business Leader of the Year Award in 2018.

Her resiliency has propelled her forward through difficult circumstances.

Myra’s advice for others is “shut down the voices in your head. We all have voices, we’ve picked up along the way. We internalize them.”

Quieting those voices has been a key part of Myra’s success. She has developed a unique strategy which she calls the 8Cs — 4Cs that act as a barrier and 4Cs which she uses to build a support system of mentors, sponsors and advisors. (Keep an eye out for a guest post from Myra on her 8Cs.)

How Jessica Pointing combines her love for physics and computer science to explore the field of quantum computing

Jessica Pointing ● PhD Student in Quantum Computing ● Stanford University

Jessica Pointing ● PhD Student in Quantum Computing ● Stanford University

Jessica Pointing grew up in Reading, England with a passion for science. As a young girl, visiting a Microsoft office on a school trip was all she needed to fall in love with quantum science and technology.

“They showed us objects levitating and zooming around a magnetic circular track,” Jessica recounts. “I was amazed. I absolutely loved the conference.”

After moving to Denmark at the age of 15, Jessica continued to explore her interests at Copenhagen International School by starting a science club, which took students to university lectures and hosted a science show. She also conducted physics research at the Technical University of Denmark to explore how ambient pressure affects the output of certain technical devices.

Jessica gradually developed her love for computer science through participation in hackathons. In 2014, she decided to come to the United States for college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After two years she transferred to Harvard to complete her undergraduate education.

“I enjoy the flexibility that the US offers,” she says. “Attending a US university allowed me to explore my interests in both physics and computer science. The mathematics and physics of it are challenging and fun, but it also has the potential to be practical to humans!”

During her sophomore year, Jessica took a course on quantum computation. The course explored the practicality of quantum computers, which are a relatively new type of computer that “solve certain problems that would take billions of years to solve on a regular computer in just seconds.” Jessica quickly discovered that “quantum computing is at the intersection of physics and computer science,” which catered directly to her interests. This was enough to set her out on exploring career options.

While in college Jessica explored various paths, including investment banking at Goldman Sachs, strats at Morgan Stanley, software engineering at Google, and management consulting at McKinsey. With these diverse experiences under her belt, Jessica graduated from Harvard in the spring of 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in physics and computer science.

Jessica says that of all her experiences and internships, her most meaningful accomplishment is her blog, where she shares how she navigated challenges with applications and interviews — the “things that no one really tells you.” She authors articles that cater to a wide range of student needs, from applying to universities to career interview tips. Jessica’s articles have even been featured by Time and Business Insider.

In an attempt to search for something that combined her love for the theoretical and practical sciences, she chose to further her education in quantum computing. She is currently exploring this intersection at Stanford University, where she is a PhD student and Knight-Hennessy Scholar specializing in quantum computing. Jessica emphasizes that her success in finding her passion comes from “not being afraid to go outside of the typical situation” and “asking so many questions.”

“Ask yourself why you do what you do. If you know why you’re doing it, you have a purpose, a direction, a goal,” she says. “This can help when you encounter a challenge. It becomes clear how to best approach it.”

Paving the Way for a more Sustainable Future: How Tatiana Estévez Carlucci is developing technology to harvest water from fog

Tatiana Estévez Carlucci ● Founder and CEO ● Permalution

Tatiana Estévez Carlucci ● Founder and CEO ● Permalution

“I have always wanted to make a difference by improving the world as much as I can.”

Even at a young age, Tatiana had a knack for improving the way machines worked. She often disarmed things that didn’t work in her childhood house, such as the washing machine. Her love for  improving processes developed into a passion to make the world a more sustainable place to live. Originally entering college as a business student, Tatiana opted to take several engineering classes and formed a deep connection with environmental engineering and water-related technologies. This connection led her to found, Permalution, a company that focuses on fog water harvesting and holistic project development.

“I believe that some of the big issues that we face worldwide are companies that are not sustainable. If we put our money into businesses that are environmentally cultured, I think we can have a cleaner long-lasting environment,” Tatiana says.

With this vision for the future, in 2015, Tatiana founded her startup while she was living in San Francisco. However, it was only after she moved to Mexico that the company really started to grow. She wanted to focus on harvesting water from fog using similar methods to traditional rainwater harvesting. Utilizing fog as a source for water could have several applications including, harvesting steam to recycle water in the textile industry, developing self-producing energy systems, and helping improve farming and agriculture.

There are five main types of fog, and although Tatiana wants to eventually harvest them all, she and her team are currently focused on harvesting coastal fog which mostly is formed close to water. Tatiana’s first task was to start looking for different designs and materials that would improve upon older methods. Although she had background knowledge from taking mechanical, electrical, and environmental engineering classes in college, it still took an extensive amount of research to ultimately design her first project.

“I built the first functional prototype to show my roommate we could harvest the fog that passed through our window, and in the morning, the whole floor was wet and damp, “ Tatiana proudly shares.

After improving the design, it was featured as a finalist in Singularity University’s Global Impact Challenge. It was also featured in Fast Company as one of the 3 new devices that could “suck water from thin air.”  With that recognition, Tatiana realized that Permalution had the potential to be implemented globally. She began building a team that included two thermal engineers to help further develop her prototype.

They continued to develop their design through a partnership with a research center at a university in China that was developing a synthetic silk from a spider that had the properties of water capture. Tatiana and her team built upon that experience to design more scalable, yield-improving materials.

Permalution first identifies a place that seems optimal to harvest fog. Secondly, the team sets a sensor module that runs for 4 to 8 weeks that allows them to determine where to place the fog catcher. The fog can then make contact with the membrane and start draining the water that usually falls in the gutter.

“We can harvest up to 3 times more water with fog than rain in areas where fog conditions are optimal. We are now exploring [how] to add solar energy and rain harvesting to the modules. We can use the membrane we created to use cloud seeding technologies to create fog anywhere in the world.”

Tatiana and her team are in the process of building a 20 meter replica of the prototype in Mexico for a massive reforestation project in Tepic, Nayarit. She explains that the water industry is highly regulated, so in the process of creating a new product, she must also navigate governmental laws and public policy related to water which can sometimes be a hindrance.

“I try to focus on the opportunities of the future instead of the current limitations. The encouragement I received from other fellow women at the CleanTech accelerator program and through competitions was gold to me. I learned a lot from women who became my role models, so I try as much as I can to assist, motivate, and encourage women who have their own initiatives.”

For this reason, in addition to the work Tatiana is doing with Permalution, she also founded Tech Quiero, an organization that supports women and girls with learning how to code.

“A misconception I often have to dispel, mainly for women who have the spark to be engineers, is that it is not about working with engines, as many believe. The word engineer comes from ingeniare which means to use your genius to put things together and make something new, useful, innovative. This is the basis for creating a new world.”

Tatiana hopes that other women can find their calling in life and believe in themselves enough to help further the creation of this constantly changing, new world we live in.

Re-architecting the Status of Female Engineers: How data architect Cindy Mottershead overcomes the stigma of women in tech

Cindy Mottershead ● Data Architect ● Blackbaud

Cindy Mottershead ● Data Architect ● Blackbaud

As a young child, Cindy Mottershead’s determination to “fix things up” led her to find the nail stuck in her mother’s washing machine drum and bring it back to working condition. This was just the beginning of her journey in engineering, specifically as a data architect.

In high school, Cindy discovered a love for puzzles when her math teacher gave her a calculus book and encouraged her to learn beyond the curriculum offered by the school. She spent countless hours playing with an Altair 8800 computer and learning how to write logic in her teacher’s office.

“As soon as I played around with this computer, I loved it,” Cindy says. “I learned about this thing called computer science and started writing with BASIC.”

Despite coming from a lower socioeconomic background with limited educational resources, Cindy pursued her interests by teaching herself about computers and receiving government and merit-based grants to further her education. Cindy’s passion continued to grow at the University of Southern Maine, where she majored in the school’s new computer science degree program.

After college, Cindy worked with modems as a junior engineer at Codex. Within a year, Cindy solved problems that even the senior engineer could not solve and advanced in the company. She then moved to Wang, a computer hardware company that produced word processors and early computer models. At this company, Cindy worked on projects with former vice president, Al Gore and put together an ethernet board to connect Wang minicomputers to the ARPANET (the network that became the basis for the Internet). Despite having the opportunities to work on projects to promote the ubiquity of the internet, Cindy admits she faced obstacles based on her being a woman in tech.

 “A group of hardware guys sent a long letter to the CEO. They said the problem is that this is software, so they needed to get a man to do it,” she says. “Luckily, my manager was very supportive and said I knew what I was doing. I eventually found the hardware glitch myself — it was not a software bug/glitch! That was a really fun experience.”

In 1985, Cindy moved on to Thinking Machines  where she worked with VLSI (very-large-scale integration) chip design and became the project leader working on an operating system. It is here, she says, that she built the work she is most proud of.

“I wrote a simulator using UNIX semaphores, sockets, shared memory, etc. to replicate the distributed system design of the Connection Machine,” she says. “I fixed some boot loader code, loaded my kernel and let it run. I ran one of the test programs, and it just ran! I stood there staring at it for hours, it seems.”

Eight years later, Cindy left Thinking Machines to start her own company, Islandway Software. This New England-based distribution company was an angel-funded enterprise that operated for five years before closing down.

“We were two women starting a technical company, which was pretty much unheard of then,” she says. “But after five years, [they] told us that it’s ‘too much of a risk’ and ‘we haven’t seen a successful company run by two women.’”

Despite the social stigma against a women-led business, Islandway Software created a very successful product: a client-server based product planning tool. Cindy says that although, “there are now a gazillion of these,” the product we designed was unique and very powerful at the time.

In 1998, Cindy began consulting and became a partner at Papyrus, a human capital services firm specializing in executive coaching, strategic consulting and talent searches. Cindy and her business partner sold Papyrus a year later and she decided to do contact-based consulting on her own. From 2000 to 2006, she invested time in volunteer work for nonprofit organizations to expand her skillsets. Cindy then founded Attentive.ly, a real time processing company, with two other women. While she was originally responsible for most of the architecture herself, Cindy soon employed a small group of engineers, most of whom were women.

“Working with a team of female engineers was such a difference from working at some of the other companies where I was the only woman,” she says. “You could really see the value of diversity on a team because people started to approach problems differently and worked well together.”

Attentive.ly was eventually sold to Blackbaud, a NASDAQ company that has been recognized by the Anita Borg Institute as one of the top companies for women technologists. Cindy currently works at Blackbaud as a data architect.

“If you love logic, you will absolutely love engineering. Just do it.” Cindy says. “Diversity makes engineering an amazing place. We need more women and people of color to make these teams vibrant and open to diverse views.”

Looking at the Big (Big) Picture: How Melanie Grierson is helping humans explore mars

Melanie Grierson ● Software Engineer ● Lockheed Martin

Melanie Grierson ● Software Engineer ● Lockheed Martin

As a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, studying astronomy and physics, Melanie Grierson is already working at one of the largest global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies companies in the world. At Lockheed Martin, she gets to perform her dream job as a software engineer on the Orion mission. Melanie always had a love for the STEM field, but she has a particular interest in astronomy because of her desire to learn more about the space.

“There’s so much that we can learn about human life on Earth by studying the universe.”

Jasmine Johnson, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, had a chance to interview Melanie via webinar in partnership with the Ron Brown Scholar Program.

Listen to her story here. Enjoy!

Learning New Keys: How Washington D.C. Developer, Natassja Linzau, Is Transforming Data Literacy in Government

Natassja Linzau ● National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ● Web Developer

Natassja Linzau ● National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ● Web Developer

Like engineers, piano teachers are guided by best practices. Piano teachers typically advise their students to think carefully about the composition and the structure, work through trial and error, and think about what outputs they want to achieve.

In high school, Natassja knew she wanted to pursue a career in music. She studied music and psychology at the Brigham Young University and later received her in Masters in Music at Catholic University. While running her music teaching studio, Natassja would guide and mentor her students on the best practices of the piano.

In the mid-90s, she began working at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington D.C. as a secretary. Still passionate about music, during her spare time, she volunteered at the D.C. Federation of Music Clubs. The organization needed a website and she offered to help, as she had taken a programming class in high school. She enjoyed building their website and knew from there she could do more. She wanted to understand web development and front-end engineering better, so she took online classes at night through the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. During this time, she was also taking care of three kids and balancing three jobs but was able to pursue a new career path she never considered before. Over the next 18 years, Natassja transitioned from her administrative role to an official Web Graphics Designer to Web Developer.

From piano keys to a computer keyboard, Natassja took her career to the next level. Natassja joined Women Who Code DC in 2015 and met other women passionate about technology who wanted to enter the industry. However, in the beginning she noticed a lack of female mentors. So, she started the Mentoring Program within their chapter, which helped connect women with role models in the tech industry.

In 2016, she took a position with the U.S. Department of Commerce as a lead front-end engineer. In this role, she oversaw the Discovery team of the Commerce Data Service, however, after a couple short months, she found another opportunity to help lead the Data Education Initiative. This new project, also called the Commerce Data Academy, created opportunities for the U.S. Department of Commerce employees to learn more about data science, cybersecurity, and new programming languages. Natassja lead this project because she wanted to foster mentorship within America’s Data Agency. More than 1000 employees signed up for the initial classes. The program she designed contained over 38 technical courses, and was so popular it began attracting interest from other federal agencies.

Moving beyond the Census Data Academy, Natassja was the Lead of the Data Talent Working Group for the U.S. Data Cabinet, which was responsible for developing guidelines and standards for data training, education, and professional development for many data roles in the federal government. This was especially important so that federal agencies can find the right data scientists for the right jobs. She also helped standardize the terminology for data on USAJobs.gov, while developing the Data Science Jobs microsite.

Over the past couple of years, Natassja has created new opportunities for female technologists, her co-workers and future data scientists interested in joining the Federal workforce. Her musician mindset of persistence and discipline allowed her to keep going, despite not starting out on a traditional path to tech.

“Be patient, and persist. Keep going and learning. Like in coding, there’s always something new to learn. Things are always changing.”